NFL football, one of America’s most popular past times, is currently in a crisis. Viewership ratings are down across the board. Many are wondering whether football can sustain its place as a lucrative asset for television companies at a time when increasing amounts of Americans are abandoning traditional television.
In the first five weeks of the season, ratings are down ten percent compared to last year. Brian Hughes, a senior Vice President at Magna Global, said that football’s traditional TV audience “is never going to be what it was again.” This has become worrisome for network executives as viewership for the NFL’s live games has remained strong over the years against trends of “cord-cutting” (getting rid of cable TV altogether) and on-demand streaming. Executives see the recent decline as dangerous to their business and have left them wondering, if football can’t survive the new era of television, what can?
However cable executives have no reason to worry or listen to Hughes. The NFL’s viewership isn’t down because cable TV as a whole is endangered or because football is becoming less popular, it’s because of factors that will resolve themselves with time.
Some say that the NFL isn’t attracting as many viewers because the sport is becoming less popular. The decrease in popularity is often attributed to the growing stigma that football is too dangerous and participation causes long term brain damage. While football is dangerous, its dangers haven’t turned people away as it is the most popular sport in America. If football were becoming less popular, that would mean college football viewership should go down too. This isn’t the case as college football ratings have been on a steady incline for the last 60 years.
If football isn’t becoming less popular, why isn’t the NFL attracting as many viewers?
One reason is the Presidential election. The first two debates were held on Sunday and Monday nights, detracting viewers from primetime games. During the election of 2000, the league saw a similar decline in ratings. Recently the NFL issued a memo to teams saying that during the 2000 campaign, “all four NFL broadcast partners suffered [ratings declines] … Fox was down 4 percent, CBS was down 10 percent, ABC was down 7 percent and ESPN was down 11 percent.” However over the next 15 years, NFL viewership rose 15%. The NFL has seen its ratings decline during an election year before and I expect ratings to go back up once the election ends.
In recent years the NFL has lost lots of star power. This year the NFL lost Peyton Manning, a beloved player, to retirement. Also, the New England Patriots started the first four games of the season without star quarterback Tom Brady because of suspension. On top of this, of the players (beside
s Manning) with the highest jersey sales in 2014, two have retired (Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson), two (besides Brady) have been suspended (Johnny Manziel and Adrian Peterson), and two have been benched (Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick).
These players gave the NFL an interesting storyline and without that Neil Macker, an entertainment analyst for Morningstar, said “people aren’t going to take the time to watch.” Although the league lost the appeal these players had, budding talent such as Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Odell Beckham Jr., and Carson Wentz are promising players who can fill the void these players left. It’s understandable that fewer people are tuning into games as many familiar names are gone, but new stars will soon be able to provide the narrative that old ones did.
The NFL and cable TV giants like NBC and CBS, who recently committed $50 billion to the league, have no reason to stress. The NFL is still extremely popular and their decline in ratings is only temporary. Once the election is over and people get used to a new crop of talent, the NFL will see its ratings go back to normal.